THE BLOG
10/27/2013 01:31 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Liberal Media

No doubt we do have a "liberal media" but it consists mainly of professional comedians. Except for the brilliance cast by a tiny fraction of periodicals, by an edge of the Internet, and by a few shows on cable or public TV, the liberal media (a plural noun treated routinely as a singular) consists largely of, is occupied primarily by, jokers who help us to laugh so we won't cry.

Shakespeare's kings and queens kept fools, who were licensed to tell the truth through wit, riddles, and double entendre, or as Emily Dickinson later succinctly advised, to "tell it slant." In our democratic age, we have the dazzling humor of Andy Borowitz, Stephen Colbert, the writers and cartoonists of Funny Times, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and their hilarious peers (all of whom, however, would fit in a small comedy club).

For those who can get through the day only by witnessing satire, there is no remedy like The Daily Show. An ancient Greek observed that a politician could withstand criticism, but not ridicule. Would it still were always so: in the age of TV and smart phones, some of our politicians have perfected the art of thriving in spite of being ridiculous. (Others contrive to escape criticism by nobility of words that screen what they actually do off camera.)

Through it all, our satirists help keep us sane by telling their version of the truth, even if, at least in the short-term, they don't change anything. Is this just another example of what Herbert Marcuse long ago called "repressive tolerance"? In other words, is the urge to act replaced, daily, by the glorious freedom to see people portrayed, often out of their own mouths, as idiots, hypocrites or greedsters?

In 2006, the White House Correspondents made the mistake of inviting Colbert to provide a dose of humor for its annual dinner. Addressing President Bush, who was seated near the podium, the comic in his role as a right-wing blowhard said, "tonight it is my privilege to celebrate this president, 'cause we're not so different, he and I. We both get it. Guys like us, we're not some brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We're not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut. Right, sir?"

Some of the correspondents dismissed Colbert as not funny, perhaps because he was equally incisive about the state of the news profession.

When the aggregator called Reader Supported News posts a fake news item by Andy Borowitz, it carefully labels his writing every time as "satire" lest some tin-eared reader mistake it as a normal mainstream news story. Of course, like much successful comedy, this satire is intended to be truer than the usual report. For example, Borowitz gives us this pointed parody of a news story:

"In an impressive white-knuckle performance on live television today, members of Congress spent several hours in a hearing room pretending to understand the Internet. Beginning this morning, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee devoted four hours to grilling Web-site contractors about site architecture, Web traffic, software, and other I.T. concepts about which their ignorance is nearly complete."


As long ago as 1985, Neil Postman wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. One point was that television creates a world that turns everything into entertainment, rather than, say, reasoned arguments. Thus our media draw us away from reform of the world that we actually inhabit.

What would Postman have thought of people who self-righteously say, "I don't mind universal surveillance, I have nothing to hide"? If the government can target any critic by assembling everything that he or she has ever said on the phone or internet, who will take the risk, as the Quakers say, of "speaking truth to power"? And where will that leave the rest of us?

As always, satire is a race between preaching to the choir and educating those who are puzzled rather than automatically supportive. The Internet by design is almost a machine for satisfying what psychologists call "confirmation bias." It supplies evidence for every major viewpoint and invents algorithms to steer each of us to familiar and comforting ideas.

In contrast, a friend reports making a practice of every month buying a magazine that has a viewpoint that is unfamiliar or even repulsive to her, or that at least goes into a totally new area. You can do the same thing on the internet, but you have to be deliberate and exploratory.

Alternative ideas can be heard from jokers in earnest rants, as in the case of Russell Brand, a British comedian who recently edited a special issue of The New Statesman and Nation on "revolution" and gave a truculent Q&A to the BBC, during which the interviewer tried to dismiss him as a "trivial man." In contrast, John Stewart keeps trying to make us think by insisting he is just trying to get laughs and that any news that he reports is "fake."

When the mainstream media are captive to ideologies that support the system, and an audience comes to feel that the ideologies are ridiculous or partial, the situation is ripe for comedians. The question is whether they will amuse us to death or whether they will reveal the corruptions of power in ways that will wake people not already convinced.